For the last few years, the war in Afghanistan seemed to be an afterthought in the U.S. media. That all changed in a hurry with the publication of tens of thousands of classified intelligence documents by the website WikiLeaks.
Those files were shared with several newspapers, each of which published extensive reports offering their interpretations of the documents. Suddenly, the chaos and violence of the Afghanistan War was back on the front pages and leading the network newscasts.
For some in the media, though, the attention was unwarranted. These documents were not the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers, we heard everywhere–as if that were the standard for revelations worth paying attention to. The Washington Post boasted headlines like “WikiLeaks Disclosures Unlikely to Change Course of Afghanistan War” and “WikiLeaks Documents Cause Little Concern over Public Perception of War.” A few days later, USA Today reported that indeed the public was concerned–support for the Afghanistan war “plummeted,” according to their new poll.
What people learned from the WikiLeaks documents depended on what they were reading. The British newspaper The Guardian reported that the files are “a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents.” The New York Times, like many other U.S. outlets, downplayed the stories of civilian killings, a decision the paper’s executive editor defended by saying those incidents “had been previously reported in the Times.” Even some liberal columnists were sounding a similar note, filling out the media’s “We already knew this” chorus.
Some even thought the WikiLeaks documents were proof that civilian killings were a small problem. A Washington Post editorial argued that the 195 deaths mentioned in the WikiLeaks files “do not constitute a shocking total for a four-year period.” This message was seconded by CBS correspondent Lara Logan, who explained that 195 deaths are nothing compared to the 2,000 deaths attributed to the Taliban. Logan actually suggested that the media should pay more attention to that fact.
This is good advice for a propagandist, but it’s lousy journalism. The WikiLeaks documents aren’t intended to be a tally of all the deaths in the Afghanistan War. In fact, thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed by U.S. and allied forces in the course of the war; any reporter who’s under the impression that fewer than 200 have lost their lives clearly doesn’t think civilian deaths merit much attention.
But taking these documents as an opportunity to talk about the atrocities committed by U.S. enemies was apparently irresistible for some outlets–hence a Time magazine cover that featured a photo of a young Afghan woman whose ears and nose were cut off last year as punishment for fleeing from her abusive husband– an attack endorsed by local Taliban thugs. The image is haunting, but the text accompanying it is more important: “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.” The clear implication is that the Taliban will commit similar atrocities without the presence of U.S. forces. It’s difficult to imagine the magazine proposing the opposite: a headline like “What Happens If We Stay in Afghanistan,” accompanied by a photo of the corpse of an Afghan child killed in an airstrike, or a U.S. soldier maimed by a roadside bomb.
There will always be debates about the ethics of leaking classified documents in wartime. There are controversies brewing about whether or not the WikiLeaks disclosures will cause harm to Afghans who have cooperated with the U.S. war effort. And plenty of airtime and ink was devoted to pondering whether WikiLeaks should be punished, and how. But the point of the leak was to remind citizens about the reality of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. On that score, it has had more impact than many years of conventional media reporting about the conflict. Contrary to the dismissive judgment rendered by many media insiders, the war isn’t “old news” to Americans after all.